Rubrics 101

1. What is a rubric?

2. What are the benefits of using a scoring/grading rubric?

3. What are the major kinds of rubrics?

4. What are the important considerations in creating the scale for a rubric?

5. Creating rubrics: Where should I start?

1. What is a rubric?

In the context of classroom assessment, a scoring/grading rubric is a quantitative tool that an instructor uses to differentiate one student from another by judging their academic achievement based on clearly articulated uniform criteria.

 2. What are the benefits of using a scoring/grading rubric?

Students, instructors, and institutions can all benefit from rubrics.

  • Students (if given the rubric in advance)
    • Get a clear understanding of an instructor's expectations for the highest level of achievement defined for an assignment.
    • Get a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.  
    • Are more likely to make intentional efforts to improve certain aspects of their work to meet these expectations.
    • Become active and engaged learners!
  • Instructors who use rubrics as part of their pedagogy and as a grading tool:
    • Are more likely to provide specific feedback to students.
    • Do not need to repeat comments on mistakes of the same nature that are found on more than one assignment/student, thus saving time.
    • Can track a student's improvement over time more easily.
    • Evaluate students' work based on consistent criteria.
    • Become more effective teachers!
  • A rubric allows an institution
    • To identify students that fail to meet a certain general education or graduation requirement more effectively than looking at students' grades from separate courses.
    • To compare student level of achievement (e. g., in writing) across courses, disciplines, or campuses.
  • A rubric better reflects the principle of equity and fairness (Stevens & Levi, 2005).                Back to the Top

3. What are the major kinds of rubrics? 

According to Bean (1996): Based on the scoring method, there are two kinds of rubrics for evaluating writing: holistic and analytic; based on how criteria are described, there are two kinds of rubrics: general description and primary trait methods. Each kind of rubric has its own advantages and tradeoffs. Using which kind depends on an instructor's purpose.

Holistic or analytic? Bean (p. 257) stated,

"The analytic method gives separate scores for each criterion--for example, ideas, ten points; organization, ten points; sentence structure, five points--whereas the holistic method gives one score that reflects the reader's overall impression of the paper, considering all criteria at one. Many instructors prefer analytic scales because the breakdown of the grade into components, when combined with the instructor's written comments, conveys detailed information about the teacher's judgment of the essay. Some people object philosophically to analytic scoring, however, on the grounds that writing cannot be analyzed into component parts. Can ideas really be separated from organization or clarity of expression from clarity of thought? Such people prefer holistic evaluation, which does not suggest that writing is a mixture of separate elements......"

You may prefer an analytic rubric, if

  • You want students to know that some characteristics/elements of their work are more important than others (e. g. organization of ideas is more important than grammar).
  • You want to give different weight to different criterion and assign separate points/scores for each criterion based on level of its importance and then assign a final score/grade by adding up a student's sub-score on each criterion.
  • You want to give students more precise feedback.

General description or primary trait method? Bean stated (p. 257):

"Proponents of general description argue that criteria for writing can be stated in a general or universal way (e. g., good organization, graceful sentence structure). Proponents of the primary trait method, however, argue that criteria must be stated specifically in terms of the given writing task." In other words, "A primary trait scale uses grading criteria keyed directly to the assignment." Bean provided the following two examples:  

Example A: A primary trait rubric to evaluate a history paper detailing the origins of the electoral college might include the following criteria: 1. Does the writer make effective use of primary sources? 2. Does the writer explore the alternatives to the electoral college discussed at the constitutional convention?

Example B: A primary trait rubric to evaluate a political science paper arguing that the electoral college should be abolished might include the following criteria: 1. Does the writer predict the consequences of abolishing the electoral college using acceptable empirical data? 2. Does the writer anticipate objections to these predications and adequately respond to them?             

4. What are the important considerations in creating the scale for a rubric?

Using what kind of scale depends on an instructor's purpose and the degree of precision he/she desires. If one's purpose is to determine whether all students have successfully fulfilled the writing requirement, then one might want to use simple scales, e. g., dichotomous scales (Yes; No), or "Needs Work--Pass--Exemplary", to identify those who are evidently deficient. If one wants to differentiate students in a more precise way, using a more accurate continuum, e. g., 7-point scale, is more appropriate.                       Back to the Top

5. Creating rubrics: Where should I start?

Sometimes you can adapt a rubric from an existing one. The key is to change it so that the revised rubric fully reflects your expectations and is most relevant to your curricular content. If you prefer to create a rubric of your own, below are some basic steps:

Step 1 Decide on the kind of rubric that is more appropriate for your purpose. Holistic or analytic? Using general description or primary trait method? Is it to be used for a single course or across courses?

Step 2 Articulate the criteria. What are the important characteristics/elements you consistently look for, e. g., a student's writing (organization, depth of argument, use of evidence, spelling/grammar, etc, if you use general description method). These elements should be tied to the specific learning objectives articulated in your course syllabus or requirements for an assignment. Try to categorize these elements so that they each represent a distinctive criterion. If you team-teach a course, or the rubric will be used across courses or institutions, you should work with other instructors to reach consensus. Hold a norming session where all instructors/faculty readers verbalize their expectations (e. g., what do your mean by "organization"?) You may also ask your students about the clarity of the criteria and consult literature to supplement the criteria.

Step 3 Define the standards based on which to differentiate student level of achievement/performance, e. g., a rating scale of 1 to 4, with 4 representing the highest level of achievement. Again, it is important that instructors/faculty readers agree on what each level actually means. Some examples of scales: Beginning--Developing--Accomplished--Exemplary; Needs Work--Competent--Exemplary; Low--Medium--High.

Step 4 Pilot test this new rubric on student work. If it is used by a team of faculty, at the norming session, have all instructors/faculty readers test it on the same student paper. Do readers actually agree with each other? How similar are their ratings? What range of difference in scoring is acceptable? How to enhance inter-rater and intra-rater reliability? If the ratings of the same paper demonstrate unreasonably large disparity that is consequential, it is imperative to re-examine the rubric, or set up rules to address such problems (e. g., rated by a third reader, negotiation between readers, etc). It is also helpful to identify a model paper for each level. 

Finally, you can now use the rubric to evaluate drafts of student work (to provide feedback to guide revision) or/and the final product (mostly to assign a score/grade). Remember to set up procedures to solve potential problems if the paper is rated by two faculty readers. Continuously refine the rubric based on feedback and revise it to reflect shifting expectations. 

(Compiled by Suhua Dong, Office of Institutional Analysis, Gettysburg College, January 2007) 

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Works cited:  

Bean, J. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 255-265.

Stevens, D & Levi, A. (2005). Introduction to Rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback, and promote student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.